Movie review: Jeff, who lives at home

One of my favorite movies ever was The Puffy Chair, a 2005 independent film, made on a budget of $1.83 (source IMDB), which was featured in 47 film festivals, all of which it won (you might not want to quote me there).  It was written and directed by two brothers, Jay and Mark Duplass, and starred Mark and a girl (Katie Aselton).  Mark played Josh, and Katie played Emily, and the premise is this young couple (not so young anymore, and together for a long time) who decide to travel cross-country to pick up a chair, an exact copy of Josh’s Dad’s favorite chair, bought on e-bay, and then deliver it to Dad for his birthday.  (His Dad, BTW, was played by their Dad). That’s it–that’s the entire plot.  Oh, and Emily’s pretty well decided it’s time for Josh to marry her already. And . . .he’s not so sure. They also pick up his brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), who travels with them, and marries a girl he meets in a movie theater, for about six hours.  I mean, they’re married for six hours.  Josh and Emily are this annoying couple who are so lovey-dovey and icky you want to shoot them.  And that’s how they go about not dealing with really serious problems in their relationship.  The dialogue in the film was so spot-on real it sounded improvised, which it was.  I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was genuinely suspenseful and so well acted–it made the movie.  It was this smart, funny, heart-breaking movie about real people who we cared about–I got it on Netflix (they do that, deliver movies you want to see right to your house, as long as they’re not the second season of Downton Abbey), and watched it three times one day. 

The Duplass brothers have gradually moved from the slums to the suburbs, professionally, with downtown penthouse aspirations.  Their next film, Baghead, was this semi-parody of horror films–it included their trademark sharp dialogue and characterization, and was if anything funnier than Puffy.  Next came Cyrus, a comedy of hostility, with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill at each other’s throats when Reilly starts dating Jonah Hill’s Mom, Marisa Tomei. 

Now it’s Jeff, Who Lives At Home, a beautiful little five actor comedy.  The plot: Jeff (Jason Segal) lives at home, in the basement of his Mom’s house. (Mom was Susan Sarandon).  She wants him to go to the hardware store and buy a tube of wood glue so he can fix the kitchen blinds.  That’s it.  That’s the plot.

Well, there’s a little more.  Jeff’s brother, Pat (Ed Helms) is employed, but he’s this fantastic a-hole who, after having a conversation with his wife Linda (Judy Greer) about how they need to save up for a down payment on a house, decides instead to lease himself a Porsche.  So that marriage’s on the rocks. Mom, meanwhile, is getting mash note texts from a secret admirer at work (where’s she’s got this cubicle drone job doing something for some company).  And Jeff.  Well, Jeff is this guy who lives in his Mom’s basement smoking weed all day, and watching Signs over and over (M. Night’s space alien movie), certain that everything in life is connected and that he’s on to discovering the cosmic secret to the universe, which, after a wrong number phone call, would seem to involve someone named Kevin. 

Jeff and Pat keep separating, but then, through the magic of ‘Kevin,’ reconnecting.  Among other things, they spy on  Linda who Pat is convinced is having an affair.  Turns out, she’s thnking about it, but in the tautly written and acted scene in which he confronts her, our sympathies are entirely with her.  In another brilliant scene, Sarandon arranges to meet her ‘secret admirer’ by the water cooler, which becomes an embarrassing fiasco involving a guy who really did just need a glass of water. I said five actors–fifth was Rae Dawn Chong, the actual secret admirer.  Who gets, with Sarandon, a lovely scene involving an office sprinker system.

Of course it does all work out at the end, and the ending, which I won’t give away, could be sentimental and yucky and isn’t.  Turns out everything in life really is connected, and the key really is a guy named Kevin.  And the Duplasses get away with it.  It’s just this likeable, funny, smart movie, about flawed and real characters who mess up big time and somehow then make up. 

The Duplasses have been called mumblecore directors.  I really hate that term–it seems dismissive, a put-down terms.  In fact, the Duplass brothers, like Kelly Reichardt and Lynn Shelton and Jeff Nichols and Chris Kentis and Kathryn Bigelow and even, now, Ben Affleck, and OMG yes, Mike Leigh, and, earlier, Scorcese have been defining a new film Naturalism a la Emile Zola, building an aesthetic on finely observed human behavior, rejecting Hollywood plot elements and moralizing, looking at real people and how they really actually do interact.  It’s on TV too: Mad Men, Breaking Bad.  Watch: the Duplasses are going to make ten great films over the next ten years.  It’s going to be fun to watch. 

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